ADHD Drug Overdoses Rise Among Kids

By Paul Fuhr 05/23/18

Reports of unnecessary exposure to ADHD medications increased by more than 60% over a 15-year period.

pouring pills into hand

The number of U.S. children unnecessarily exposed to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medications has skyrocketed in recent years.

According to CNN, a new study examined calls to U.S. poison control centers between 2000 and 2014 involving ADHD meds and children. Researchers discovered that the number of calls increased from 7,018 in 2000 to 11,486 in 2014.

The study’s authors determined that “exposure” meant the “unnecessary ingestions, inhalation or absorption” of ADHD medications—both accidentally and purposefully.

“What we found is that, overall, during that 15 years, there was about a 60% increase in the number of individuals exposed and calls reported to poison control centers regarding these medications,” said Dr. Gary Smith, one of the study’s lead authors.  

The study analyzed approximately 156,000 poison center calls over the 15-year period, finding that about 82% of the calls were “unintentional exposures” while the remaining 18% were “intentional.”

Dr. Smith observed that the findings were “surprising,” mainly because of “the severity of the exposures among the adolescents that were due to intentional exposure.”

The study’s researchers also found that the frequency of ADHD drug exposures increased by 71% between 2000 and 2011, though between 2011 and 2014, the rate dropped by 6.2%.

Smith acknowledged that while it was “unclear” why exposure rates experienced a slight downturn in 2011, he suggested that FDA warnings about the adverse effects of ADHD medications might be responsible. (Of the poison center calls, about 10% resulted in a “serious medical outcome.”) 

ADHD continues to be one of the most common behavioral disorders among children and adolescents, CNN reported.

“It's been diagnosed more frequently in recent years than historically, but there are unlikely to be large baseline changes in the prevalence of this disorder,” said Dr. Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness at Johns Hopkins. “The changes in diagnosis are probably more from evolving thresholds for diagnosis than true changes in the population.”

Still, the number of ADHD diagnoses among U.S. children “more than doubled” between 2005 and 2014.

In fact, nearly 14% of all American children were diagnosed with ADHD in 2014, CNN reported, as opposed to only 6.8% in 2005.

Researchers narrowed their study down to four common ADHD medications: methylphenidate (Ritalin), amphetamine (Adderall), atomoxetine and modafinil.

Ritalin was responsible for the highest number of exposures, the study revealed. Researchers also compared exposure to the four meds across three separate age groups: 0-5 years, 6-12 years and 13-19 years.

In the youngest age group, unintentional exposure was due to “exploratory behaviors” while exposure among children aged 6 to 12 was due to “therapeutic errors or accidentally taking multiple pills.”

Interestingly enough, among children in the oldest group, more than 50% of the exposures were intentional. “These are stimulants, and they're used by teens for various reasons,” Dr. Smith said. “Students, for example, might take it to get through a final exam. But like other stimulants, they might also take it because it gives them a high.” 

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.